Albigensians, more popularly termed Cathars, were a medieval Christian sect who gained widespread influence in Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. The sect itself originated in the Eastern regions, most probably in parts of the Byzantine Empire.
The Cathars significantly differed from the Catholic Church in their beliefs which consequently pitted the sect against the Church and Papacy. Pope Innocent III tried to diminish the influence of the sect in Southern France, first by diplomacy and then by declaring a Crusade against them. While the diplomacy failed, the Albigensian Crusade decisively ended the movement’s influence all over southern France.
The Albigensians believed in a dualist philosophy. In this philosophy, the universe was clearly divided into two Gods or forces. One of these was the force of evil, namely Satan, who represented all that was chaotic and material in the world. Consequently, the world and the humans were also believed to have been created by Satan.
In contrast, the good God was free from the taints of material and carnal manifestations. More simply, the Albigensians held the God of the Old Testament as the Satan and that of the New Testament as the good God. They also opposed all violence and warfare, and believed that inside the essentially evil human bodies, the spirits of the angels dwelled who were trapped in their flesh cages.
The Albigensians disagreed with the Catholic Church on many vital points. Among these was their belief that the eucharist was not the body of the Christ. They also did not believe in the practice of baptism by water. This latter was apparently because they believed that water, as material, was essentially a manifestation of the power of evil.
The Albigensians criticised the Church’s officials for selling forgiveness for sins, earth for burials and other such things related to faith, in return building their fortunes. They saw this as the corruption of the Church and Christ’s message.
In the early 13th century, Pope Innocent III attempted to diminish the influence of the Albigensians, also called Cathars, in the regions of southern France. His diplomatic efforts met with little success and one of his papal legates participating in them was murdered. He then took up the cause of a Crusade against the Albigensians and was successful in persuading the leading French nobles to support it.
The Crusade began in 1209 and continued all the way until 1229. It pitted the northern French barons against the southern French barons, the latter being active supporters of the Albigensians. The Pope promised the northern French barons that they could seize the lands of the heretics. Consequently, the Crusade continued for 20 years, with intermittent breaks and brief setbacks. But by the end of 1229, all Albigensian support in southern France had ended and the influence of the sect had effectively been crushed.
When Church initially attempted to convince the Cathars to give up their beliefs, it met people of firm resolve and genuine piety in Christian terms. This led the Church to believe that only pious preachers could genuinely affect such people. Consequently, the Dominican Order was established which became a vital part of the Church, although it played little role in influencing the Cathars.